Confession: I don’t like The Lord of the Rings films. All of them. Well, at least the first three, as I skipped The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey because of my disdain for its predecessors, and needless to say, I’ll be skipping The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as well. Of course, millions of others will not be skipping the film this weekend, as it tries to land somewhere in the $80-90 million range, matching the previous film’s performance. For me, director Peter Jackson’s initial trilogy operates on bloated runtimes meant to appease fanboy OCD, including Jackson’s own. The apex of contemporary pop-cultural obsession-as-sickness is no better embodied than by these films, which edify young moviegoers to view film culture as narrative/character/imaginary playtime rather than a mindful and serious medium for artistic expression.
However, rather than further lambast The Hobbit, Jackson, and Warner Bros. for their transparent, masturbatory decisions to turn one novel into three films for means of tripling profits, of more importance this week is examining how critics are responding to The Desolation of Smaug, and the sorts of qualities being sought after in their evaluations of Jackson’s latest. The film currently boasts a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 75%—a full 10% higher than the first installment, though the middling reviews did not negatively affect its box office, as The Unexpected Journey had the highest-grossing opening weekend of any films in the entire franchise. Critic proof, like most franchises, but it nevertheless remains the critic’s role to instruct attentive filmgoers to the qualities worthy of contemplation.
I wonder, then, with Alan Scherstuhl’s mostly positive review for The Village Voice, which claims that The Desolation of Smaug boats “the greatest dragon in the history of movies,” if this kind of laudatory insight is meant to be serious or tongue in cheek? One is inclined to think the latter, given Scherstuhl’s excellently pithy term “fantasy-entertainment complex” to describe the sensibilities governing Jackson’s changes and additions from the book, which James Berardinelli claims in his review account for more than 50% of what’s on screen. However, Scherstuhl continues by stating his overall perspective: “I still adore much of Jackson’s latest Christmas pudding, despite its garish extravagance, its moral cluelessness, its disorganized bulk, and its discomfiting belief that battle is a kind of weaponized freeze tag, where any touch of the good guy’s axe or sword means the bad guy immediately collapses.” Yet, Scherstuhl’s review registers as a positive—a confounding choice that appears to equate sporadic adoration as worthy of recommendation.
On a week where an especially grumpy, but always perceptive Jonathan Rosenbaum deemed December “the season of critical inflation,” and more or less deemed Blue Is the Warmest Color to be the only great film of 2013, the lack of rigidity in critical evaluation among many fine and excellent critics is especially glaring. It appears as if the fantasy-entertainment complex has set its own standards and critics are too quick to evaluate the film within the context of that system, rather than the underlying socio-economic factors that perpetuate it. Such focus seemingly comes from the Roger Ebert school of criticism, whose emphasis on evaluating films within the context of their own artistic aspirations has influenced generations of critics since. While certainly a valid approach to highlighting what a film achieves relative to itself and other films, shortcomings appear by way of the shortsighted inflation Rosenbaum laments.
In his review of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ebert begins by warning his readers of the film’s longish runtime: “I tell you now so you won’t complain later. [The film] needs to be long, and it needs to be indirect, because the film is about how sad truths can be revealed during the slow process of doing a job.” Of course, such warnings only need to accompany art-house fare, since fans of The Hobbit or Christopher Nolan greet gargantuan runtimes with wide-eyed smiles rather than sneering trepidation, regardless of whether or not the material necessitates the bloat. Perhaps it’s a circumstance of serialized television dulling viewers’ appreciation of visual/narrative economy; perhaps it’s a loosening of critical and intellectual standards. Whatever it is, critics would be wise to adopt a bit of Rosenbaum’s Grinch-y approach to the end-of-year hoopla that revolves around forced (but often false) reflection, list-making, and, perhaps worst of all, being first out the gate to do so. To critics, audiences, and the fantasy-entertainment complex, I say: Slow your roll, Bilbo.
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: $82.7 NEW
2. A Madea Christmas: $37.2 NEW
3. Frozen: $19.3 -39%
4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: $13.9 -47%
5. Thor: The Dark World: $2.7 -43%
6. Out of the Furnace: $2.6 -50%
7. Delivery Man: $2.2 -40%
8. Homefront: $1.7 -50%
9. The Book Thief: $1.5 -43%
10. The Best Man Holiday: $1.1 -57%